The Atlanta Braves were recently noted by Baseball HQ’s podcast as an organization that you want to have your young fantasy pitcher come from if you’re in a dynasty league. Their starting rotation in 2014 will reflect that, as the team is very deep in starters with guys like Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Brandon Beachy, and David Hale all homegrown players that will compose the starting rotation in 2014. Add in Gavin Floyd when he returns from surgery, and you have 7 viable candidates for 5 rotation spots. While this is a wonderful problem to have for most teams, it does limit what the Braves’ vaunted development system can introduce to the league as far as starting pitchers in 2014. So if we see an introduction of a young arm in 2014, it will likely come in the bullpen. This is a quick overview of a list of young arms in the Braves system that could have a major impact on the 2014 team if put into the right role (these are by alphabetical order, not by any prediction on who will be most likely to impact). Our own Chris Headrick wrote up a piece on Gus Schlosser, one player who would be on this list, but you can see what Chris has to say about Gus as he spent way more time on him than I would have here!
Matt Chaffee, LHP – Chaffee was a late pick (19th round) of the Braves in 2011 after a successful season closing for the University of Arizona. He overcame two significant injuries in college, Tommy John surgery and a broken ankle from a car accident, which is part of why he slipped to the 19th round. Chaffee is a hard-throwing lefty, but he has yet to climb above advanced-A ball. He has the sort of stuff that if he could harness it, he could ascend quickly and become a late-inning force for the Braves, as noted by his career 11 k/9. If he struggles to work against both sides, he could be a very effective LOOGY.
J.R. Graham, RHP – Graham was a 2011 4th round pick of the Braves from Santa Clara University. Passed over by a number of teams because of his size (generously listed at 5’10), he did nothing in his first two years but ascend quickly up the Braves’ minor league system with a dominating mix of good control and a heavy sinking fastball with great movement. 2013 was a lost season for Graham as he battled shoulder woes before finally calling it quits on the season to rehab his sprained shoulder. Graham has an excellent sinker along with triple-digit velocity straight fastball, so if he ends up moving from a starter to a reliever, he could certainly be a dominant one. His path to the majors may be slowed this season due to the team wanting to see if he can return to the dominating starter he was in 2012 before moving him to the bullpen, but if he makes that move, he should be expected to dominate in the role and move quickly to the big league club.
Ryne Harper, RHP – Harper is a great story as yet another 2011 draft pick, but even later than Chaffee, as he was selected in the 37th round from Austin Peay mainly on the legs of Braves scout LeBon Joye pushing for his former college teammate’s son to be drafted. The Braves have reaped the benefits ever since. Harper is a two-pitch pitcher with a 94 mph fastball and a slider that has reportedly gained much more action since becoming pro. Harper does lose some control on the pitch at times, but if he can put forth a season like he did in AA in 2013 (1.79 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 2.9 BB/9), he’ll definitely have a shot at the majors quickly. Harper’s biggest issue is losing touch on that slider, which can get driven hard when it doesn’t break, leading to streaks where he’ll give up big hits, like he did in May of last season.
James Hoyt, RHP – Hoyt’s story is a bit akin to Brandon Beachy, though Hoyt spent two years spinning his craft in Independent League ball before being signed by the Braves after a 2012 season where Hoyt pitched in three leagues, including the Mexican League. Hoyt has a very projectable 6’5 frame, and he throws as you’d expect with a 94-96mph fastball that reportedly has touched 98 with a dominating slider. He’s not passed AA yet and is already 27, but much of the age-to-level thing has to do with a lot of the nuances a new draftee would have worked on already like pick-off moves, holding runners, and defensive awareness. Hoyt put up over a strikeout per inning in AA, and if he keeps picking up the little stuff, his overpowering pitches will lead him to an audition in Atlanta sooner rather than later. (Little trivia: When you look up Hoyt’s name at baseball-reference.com, the first major league name that comes up is James Hoyt Wilhelm, the Hall of Fame knuckleballer who went by his middle name.)
Zach Jadofsky, RHP – Yet another undrafted gem from the Braves front office, Jadofsky signed as a free agent after the 2011 draft out of West Florida. Jadofsky has a nice 6’3 power frame that you’d expect a 95mph fastball to come from, but instead he typically sits in the 88-90 range, though with notable sinking action. He’s most known for a killer curveball that he can lose the feel for rather quickly. This may not seem like the type of guy to highlight here, but the results are what are simply hard to ignore. He’s only made it to high-A ball and will likely start the season back there, but the reports on his curveball and command are strong enough that he could be the type of guy to quickly jump up the ladder in a ROOGY role. Thus far, he’s put up nearly a strikeout per inning while walking less than 3 bb/9. If he can continue that success up the ladder, he could be a useful piece of a bullpen.
Mark Lamm, RHP – Stop me if you heard this one before: Lamm was a 2011 draftee of the Braves, in the 6th round out of Vanderbilt. Lamm slipped some in the draft process because of Tommy John surgery, but even then, some thought the Braves may have reached on him in the draft. Lamm has a great 6’4, 230-lb frame that pumps out a solid fastball, but he’s more known for his changeup and slider. His biggest issue has been command, though he’s yet to spend a full season at any level, so part of that could be ironed out by seeing how he does staying at one level with one catcher for a full season. He’ll likely get that at AAA Gwinnett this year, where he pitched 18 games last season and struck out nearly a batter per inning.
Cody Martin, RHP – Okay, this is getting ridiculous. Martin was a 7th round pick in the 2011 draft by the Braves out of Gonzaga. Martin was a college closer, but the Braves moved him to the rotation in his first full season in 2012. The results were excellent, as Martin posted a 2.93 ERA with 10.3 k/9 in high-A in 2012. He followed that up in 2013 by jumping all the way to AAA and posting a combined 3.16 ERA with 9 k/9 and 3.8 bb/9. Martin’s control was much worse this season than his previous two, but his previous numbers show he has the ability to work well in the strike zone. He’ll likely be in AAA as a starter, but his experience out of the bullpen could lead to him filling a hole in Atlanta in the pen if one would arise.
Shae Simmons, RHP – Simmons is a diminutive righty that the Braves secured in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft from Southeast Missouri State. Simmons is only listed at 5’9, and many have stated that to be generous. That said, he simply blew away batters all of 2013, including in the Arizona Fall League against some of the best prospects in the game. Simmons reminds me a lot of Craig Kimbrel, not in that he leans over before every pitch, but that he has control issues in the minors, but he seems to dial them down every time he’s put into a tough situation. Kimbrel sported a 5.7 bb/9 ratio in the minors, but has a 3.2 bb/9 ratio in the majors. Simmons has a similar dominance, but he even has better control numbers with 4.4 bb/9 in his minor league career thus far. Simmons is a good bet to knock on the door of the major leagues this season, whether it’s out of camp or mid-summer, but he could certainly be insurance against Kimbrel getting too expensive after 2014.
Ian Thomas, LHP – Yet another one of Frank Wren’s brilliant free agent signings, Thomas spent three seasons in Independent League ball before the Braves signed him early in 2012. His scouting reports are mixed, some reporting low-90s fastball with lots of sinking action to go with a slider and a change, and I even found one report of him throwing a splitter rather than a change. Regardless of what he throws, the report is that Thomas hides the ball very well to both sides of the plate as hitters had identical .192 BAA against him in 2013. Thomas moved from the bullpen to the AA rotation in 2013, and he excelled in that role. While already 27 in the first month of the 2014 season, Thomas has quickly jumped up the ladder such that it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he’s the one name off of this list that starts the season in the majors, especially until Jonny Venters returns. Keep an eye on him in spring as you might see him jump from AA to the majors based on how he handles spring training.
In retrospect, I could have simply done a write-up on the Braves’ 2011 draft, but one of the things noticeable throughout this writing is that there isn’t a single first round pick mentioned here. The Braves have a reputation for finding “diamonds in the rough”, and most of this list can be considered exactly that!